Some Thoughts on Flexibility: Stacey Mosesso McConnell

There is an increasing amount of data surrounding the appetite for and benefits of flexible work—and increasing competition for talent and concerns about retaining that talent has employers realizing that offering flexibility is critical. The legal space can be slow to adapt to changing times, but flexibility absolutely must be among the goals for law firms and legal departments hoping to keep up with evolving work culture. Companies and firms alike seek to channel innovative thought to drive their businesses forward. Openness to innovation must include more than simply implementing new technology, creating new structures and collecting data in different ways, but must have at its core a willingness to see people as whole, complex individuals whose productivity and happiness are nurtured in equal parts.

How we define flexibility and how it is implemented is the subject of much debate, research and scholarship. There is an increasing effort to create structure out of the nebulous construct of “flexibility.”  “Flexibility” usually means any combination of reduced hours, ability to work remotely, and ability to job-share. As flexibility data adds up and conclusions seem clear, it appears a critical mindset shift must be made to use this data to define and implement effective solutions.  Rather than seeing people who seek flexibility as somehow being suspect, less career-focused, or risky in some way, it’s time to normalize flexible work.  Flexibility can be something an employee utilizes at different points of his or her career—it isn’t necessarily a permanent decision.

It’s a Gender Issue, But It’s Complicated 

A lack of flexibility disproportionately affects women, leading to a decrease of women in the workforce. This is true across many industries but particularly troubling when it comes to law. Although women represent roughly half of law school graduates, women in equity partnerships hover at about 20%.  The decline is pronounced when it comes to child-rearing years where the rigors of law firm life and lack of access to flexibility leads women to make difficult choices. As women systematically leave the legal profession there are personal, business and larger societal implications that must be considered. Obviously, individuals lose power as well as the ability to earn a fair income when they return to work. While on a micro level this is disappointing and frustrating, in the legal space it results in some macro-level issues as well. When women end up leaving more junior level attorney roles in droves because of the demands of the practice combined with no realistic flexibility offerings, how will they ever re-enter to earn more senior levels roles, become judges, or rise to more powerful positions in companies? What implications will this have for law firms and companies’ bottom lines, let alone society at large?

One way to encourage women to stay in firms during the years they typically leave is to offer structured flexibility—but this requires leadership to model use of flexibility policies. Robust programs to do this and collect data regarding their success should be priorities. Retaining women is an end unto itself as there is compelling data about the correlation between the participation of women and bottom line success. Additionally, and importantly, structured flexibility can start to move the needle on the pay gap. Much attention is given, rightfully to the “10 year mommy gap.” Given such clear data, any steps to close this gap are moves in the right direction. If leadership prioritizes structured flexibility from the top down, it will encourage its use and over time, hopefully work against negative stereotyping that prevents full and robust adoption. Men can lead by example when it comes to taking advantage of these policies. If it’s clear that using the opportunities for flexible work are not going to result in a loss of status at work or be a detriment to promotion, then we can be sure that over time the policies will become ingrained in the workplace culture. Having a policy that no one uses is not going to accomplish any of the goals that the policy purports to address. 

How Is Big Law Leading the Way? 

Thus far, much of Big Law has adopted flexibility policies, but a small percentage of lawyers are taking advantage of them. See the impressive work by the Diversity and Flexibility Alliance. It seems the stigma associated with a reduced schedule will take some time to diminish. Manar Morlaes, President and CEO of the Diversity and Flexibility Alliance summarizes: “For a flexibility policy to be successful it must be de-gendered, de-parented, de-stigmatized, and integrated into the cultural norms of an organization.”  Clearly there’s work to be done here—we can agree that a certain set of practices makes good business sense, but we can’t force people to adapt to a cultural shift overnight.

There is reason to be hopeful--as some firms have reported success with their new flex policies and the rewards are being reaped by both male and female attorneys. Recent stories have shared how flex time is being enjoyed by men who see this not as a “mommy” issue, but as a “person” one, and emphasize that working flexibly has made them better lawyers. Says Erik Lemmon, an associate in the Denver office of Holland & Hart: “I almost view it as something that saved my legal career, because I was essentially being forced to choose between hours and hours and hours at the law firm or doing what I wanted to do at home with my family and kids. I wasn’t going to compromise on my kids, family and wife.”  Recently, Schiff Hardin was in the news, announcing a new Ramp Up/Down gender neutral flex policies for new parents.  Other firms have similar programs in the works and hopefully these programs will be used by both men and women and demonstrated to be effective.

How Can We Big Picture This? 

In a certain sense, flexibility is diversity. It is self-evident that in order to have a variety  of opinions around any given table, it would require those individuals to have different backgrounds, different interests, different world-views, and perhaps different approaches to how and where work is executed.  Diversity is multi-dimensional, so it’s time to view flexibility as a measure that can assure employers have a variety of voices participating in their decision-making. The legal space is really no different from other industries who have been forced to have cultural shifts redefine how they do business. A focus on output, especially the quality of that output must be paramount, and the emphasis on the hows of the outputs must decline. The inputs just aren’t as important anymore, although we see that in the legal space they are held in high regard. Engaging talent that is loyal, hard working and innovative will require firms and legal departments to look more clearly at how their models differ from those of other industries who have been more forward-looking in how they adopt flexibility and other measures to support employees in a meaningful way. Given the clear business case for retention and promotion of women within a diverse workforce, it’s well past time the legal world embraces flexibility and implements programming that recognizing there are many ways to offer innovative work arrangements that will accomplish multi-factor goals.